Armstrong 3.0 – part 2

“They don’t like me saying that in 2009 I was clean but these things are the truth. But I also understand the people who say they don’t believe me… What I’m saying is that the day there’s a test of a transfusion I’ll be the first guy to put that sample [from after the Mont Ventoux stage in 2009] on the line. And I’ll bet everything on that.” – Lance Armstrong.

I’ll bet everything on that.

In the book The Sports Gene, author David Epstein notes that performance is determined by physiology and training – nature and nurture. A fairly obvious conclusion. But the details are more interesting. He describes four types of athlete: high natural ability but low responder to training; low natural ability and low responder to training (that’s most of us); low natural ability but high responder to training; and high natural ability and high responder to training (that’s Greg LeMond). Low and high are relative terms for athletes, but there are numerous examples of athletes with abundant natural talent that simply hit a plateau – there were no more gains to be made from training. There are also those with relatively lower natural ability but could make huge gains from training and keep progressing. These types are not mutually exclusive, but the point is that all athletes have a different starting point, and respond differently to training, and both those characteristics are genetic.

The much debated question is whether Lance Armstrong could have won the Tour de France without doping. This question, as has been previously argued here, is impossible to answer with certainty because there has never been a comparable Tour de France without some form of doping (well, perhaps that’s another argument) so there is no baseline to establish from historical experience. Except perhaps the 2009 Tour, likely free of doping that significantly tilted the playing field, where Armstrong placed third.

It would seem that one component of Armstrong’s legacy is his capability as a cyclist (although that might seem only a diversion). Armstrong, as the above quote shows, is adamant to the point of exhaustion that he did not dope during the 2009 Tour. He has even gone so far to say that Michele Ferrari warned him off it. Yet experts examining Armstrong’s blood profile have a different view. “Suppressed red blood cell production is a classic signature associated with blood doping,” said Michael Ashenden. “The absence of a natural decline in blood concentration during a three-week race is also consistent with blood doping.” Others echoed these concerns.

Yet Armstrong remains insistent. Vehemently so. Is this (still) faith versus science in the Armstrong saga? Two questions, then: just how good was Armstrong as an athlete; what motivation could he have for lying about 2009. Firstly, there have been transformations in cycling’s recent history. Both Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins were surprise winners in some ways, given their histories on their bike. If one rules out doping – a reasonable proposition – then it is clear that their training regime at Sky (unorthodox, rigid, brutal) gave them the edge. Whatever their innate abilities, they responded and adapted to the training – Froome perhaps even more so, as Wiggins seems to have suggested that he might never reach the same peak again as it was simply too hard, physically and psychologically. One could argue that no matter how much benefit he gained from doping, Armstrong was a high responder and demonstrated a significant ability to transform himself – from a relatively high natural ability, let’s be honest – to a world beater. There is not enough evidence to entirely refute the proposition that he could have placed third in the 2009 Tour by riding clean, although it remains suspect.

Secondly, then, why would Armstrong lie – now that so much is in the open? He has said that he does not want to compete again, apparently, so statutes of limitation are not his concern. He has said that he wants to focus on cancer advocacy, if the community will have him back. That’s a big ‘if’. With an uncertain future trajectory, it is possible that Armstrong is betting everything on being able to stay engaged somehow. If he was doping in 2009, then Comeback 2.0 would have been nothing but a cynical grab at another Tour victory. If the mission was a campaign to raise cancer awareness then why would he dope? Perhaps he is clinging to this final lie because his future depends on it. But then surely if it could be confirmed for certain that he doped then this lie would be the last straw – there would be no more trust ever in what he says. The time for retraction has passed so we now have a repentant Armstrong staking it all on a claim that science is refuting. No wonder we are all confused!

History will, one suspects, remember Lance Armstrong as described by Flloyd Landis as a ‘badass on a bike’. Maybe he benefited more than other riders from doping, but if we took that all away, was he less of a badass than Ullrich, Beloki, Olano, Zulle, Basso and others from that era? In ‘The Armstrong Lie’, Armstrong claims that there was no EPO at the 2000 Tour, only a transfusion in the middle, after he had already cemented victory at Hautacam. He appeared to be claiming that doping was not the main factor that allowed him to dominate on that stage. That was, however, the year of the Actovegin scandal, so Armstrong can surely not claim to have raced entirely clean. As well, George Hincapie testified that Armstrong was taking testosterone prior to the Tour – if not other products as well. Furthermore, the transfusion probably allowed him to hold onto his lead for the rest of the Tour. So maybe the doping will be remembered as a crucial component of his victories, but not separable from the relentless focus on the other preparations necessary to win. He was a badass, but doping allowed him to be a Tour-dominating badass.

In 2009, Armstrong came to the Tour – following a lacklustre Giro – with good power numbers and feeling confident to win. He was 10th in the prologue, a less than dominating start. The Alps were a struggle and Armstrong looked fragile on the Verbier stage that Contador won handily. He fell back on the Colombiere stage but claims in Comeback 2.0 that it was only a tactical mistake not to follow the Schlecks on their attack. But could he have followed the accelerations? On Mont Ventoux he defended his podium place (which L’Equipe commended him for) and there he looked stronger. Was it because of a transfusion? Armstrong is adamant that it was not. Assuming that it was, for the sake of argument, without he might have slipped some places but still stayed top 5, top 10 at the worst. Does that represent Armstrong’s level: a podium contender, but the top step far from guaranteed, even unlikely – world class but not a world beater, and certainly not 7 times in a row?

Overall, there are two reflexive view on Armstrong: firstly, that he would have won his Tours anyway, in a clean peloton (if such a thing were possible at the time); secondly, that he could never have won a Tour or even placed on the podium. Neither view seems accurate, but proving it either way is impossible. On balance, doping probably ensured 7 Tour wins. But one suspects that perhaps Armstrong’s own doping was less important than we might think for at least making him podium competitive, but the team support from his ‘prepared’ teammates was more important than often suggested. But that is just a gut feeling. And what were the percentages doping gave him (5%, 10%, 20% – was the program the most sophisticated (USADA) or the basic minimum  (Armstrong)); how many Tour wins in a clean peloton (1, 7, none)? Ultimately, without other evidence, are we left only with supposition and the curious case of 2009?

So many questions. This post has focused only on his capabilities as a rider, not on his off the bike behaviour and his cancer foundation work. These are difficult topics, particularly from a distance. But they seem important and still relevant. What would have happened if Armstrong had packed it in after the Ruta del Sol in 1998, his first comeback race after cancer – what would the cycling landscape in North America look like? This is an interesting question, and the subject of part 3 in this series.

Armstrong in the Alps in 2000, his worst day on the bike. But the yellow still defended.
Armstrong in the Alps in 2000, his worst day on the bike. But the yellow still defended.

Dear reader, this post was a long time in the writing because, on re-reading and editing it, the entire thesis appeared jumbled and inconsistent. Or perhaps it’s because there’s a lack of good evidence and anything regarding Armstrong is overly complicated. As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Anyway, it’s been posted to make way for part 3, which will hopefully give a more simple answer – even if it is wrong.